Crafty Sea Lions Gobbling Up Endangered Salmon

by Robert Cheney

in News

Salmon have been declared endangered due to declining runs. As a result, government has imposed a variety of “solutions”. Agricultural irrigation from the Columbia has been reduced, water permits for household or farm use have been all but stopped, and public utilities are being required to dump water over spillways to keep flow levels higher rather than build reservoirs for summer power generation. Meanwhile the federal government have required hundreds of millions in Bonneville Dam upgrades in the hopes of assisting salmon migration. The Columbia River runs right in front of people’s home with 200,000 cubic feet per second and they wouldn’t be able get a permit to draw water for their house plants even if they wanted to.

Sea Lion Eating Endangered Chinook Salmon

Sea Lion Eating Endangered Chinook Salmon. Courtesy image of AP

The crafty sea lions have figured out that when the salmon return to spawn they are slotted into a narrow concrete chute to traverse the Bonneville Dam fish ladder. For the sea lions and salmon it’s an unnatural barrier with little protection. But for the sea lions, it’s a moving buffet line. In fact, it’s so attractive that the sea lions have migrated over a hundred miles up the Columbia River to get to the feast.

So after millions in public investment, people aren’t too excited about building a salmon recovery system just to fatten sea lions. Sea lions are very smart. Once a few are shot, they will figure it out in a hurry and stay away from the salmon buffet at the dams.

Picture of the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam to help salmon survival

The fish ladder at Bonneville Dam

So, in response to this threat to to the endangered salmon, a program under the Marine Mammal Protection Act  was created that allows the fish and wildlife departments in Idaho, Oregon and Washington to kill sea lions that eat endangered salmon. Nine sea lions have died by lethal injection this spring, and almost 50 have been killed or relocated since the program started in 2008. The program was on hiatus in 2011 due to a Circuit Court ruling against the killings.

On March 15, 2012, the NOAA’s Fisheries Service extended the program until 2016 allowing the killing of up to 92 sea lions (since reduced by a judge to 30 per year).

The Humane Society filed a suit to permanently stop the killings and asked to file an injunction asking that no sea lions be killed until the suit works it way through court. A judge will rule on the request by the end of May.

Aerial view of Columbia River and Bonneville Dam

Aerial view of Columbia River and Bonneville Dam (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Early in last Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Simon told the Humane Society lawyer he would have a “tough road to hoe” in winning the injunction because the killings won’t threaten the sea lion species, and plaintiffs need to prove that significant harm was imminent.

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